Book Review by Sylvia D: Norah C[ordner] James (1896-1979) came from a wealthy Hampstead family and the British Library catalogue lists more than 70 books written by her, mainly novels but also cookery and children’s books. Some were co-written with Barbara Beauchamp, James’s partner for the second half of her life. All the novels she published in the early 1970s were hospital romances. This book was published by Cassell in 1944.
Chicago Tribune, 1930
James’s main claim to fame is that Sleeveless Errand, her first book, published in 1929, was banned and confiscated under the Obscene Publications Act on the grounds that it contained ‘conversations by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part are under the influence of drink, and not only tolerate, but definitely tolerate, promiscuity’ and that ‘blasphemy is freely indulged in by practically all the characters, and filthy language and indecent situations appear to be the keynote ‘ (Leeds Mercury, March 5 1929). All known copies were burned, but an edition was published in Paris by Jack Kahane, then at the start of his career as a publisher who distributed texts in English that were unacceptable to the British authorities. Sleeveless Errand is now in print again (legally) along with a few of James’s other novels.
Enduring Adventure, which was written before D Day, focuses on a Bloomsbury public house, the Red Sun, run by the Black family. It tells the stories of the locals who frequented the pub and how their lives were affected and changed by the War. There is little character development, though, as James uses the regulars primarily as a voice for the messages she constantly returns to: that everyone should ‘do their bit’ for the war effort and that, come what may, ‘our’ country will ultimately be victorious.
By the beginning of May 1940 when the story opens local people are bored with inaction and nervous about how they will respond when the crunch comes. They worry about how they might react if they have to face air raids. They try to imagine what being invaded might be like. As local artist, Gay, reflects, ‘Oh, God, let something happen soon to cure all these people of their terrible feeling of disillusionment and boredom. The high spirit of adventure and service could not exist in a vacuum, that was the tragedy of England now’ – (p 39).
James then chronicles the major events of the War, but very superficially. She uses each event as a trigger for yet another character joining the forces, signing up for war work or enrolling in one of the auxiliary organisations. Gay is already in the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) but, as the Germans pour into France, her journalist boyfriend, Dick, although in a reserved occupation, rushes off to join the Army. The Blacks’ daughter, Allison, had already joined the ARP but when their son, Jack, is killed at Dunkirk, the barmaid, Beth, with whom, unbeknownst to his family, he had been in love, immediately joins the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). Mike, the barman, joins the Army and is sent to the Middle East. The fall of Tobruk propels alcoholic George, who fought in the First World War and ghost writes for a living, to move from the Local Defence Volunteers (Home Guard) to munitions work.
For today’s reader, the novel contains some interesting historical material, with a lot of everyday period detail. It addresses concerns about the impermanence of life in wartime. There are dramatic descriptions of the London blitz; how suddenly your neighbours are no longer there; the psychological effect of the constant lack of sleep and always being on edge. When the home of Emma, the Red Sun’s cleaner, is bombed, the family is at first reliant on a neighbour and then find a temporary home in the pub. For Emma’s daughters, ‘the war had not meant a great deal . . . till now. Since this morning it had become a menacing thing that impinged upon their personal lives’ – (p 112). Then they discover that the compensation money hardly goes anywhere, ‘just enough cups and plates to go round; so few chairs that it meant bringing them in from each room if they sat down in the kitchen for a meal – (p 148).
The War also prompts people to rush into relationships. Gay had been reluctant to marry Dick but once the raids start she sits down and writes to him suggesting they should get married on his next leave. ‘She told him that she had changed her mind about waiting for the war to end. It seemed as if it might never do so’ – (p 130). Even when married, though, she is tempted to have a fling with another married man who argues that as he is soon to go back to his squadron she should ‘give (him) these last few days’ – (p 180). Another rushed relationship is that of Roger, a young doctor at the local hospital, and Allison, one of the publican’s daughters, who get married in secret. Here the issue of class relationships creeps in as Roger, who comes from a wealthy county background, is afraid his family will disapprove of him marrying an innkeeper’s daughter. James neatly resolves this by having him die –heroically but needlessly – during the first night of the blitz, and the baby Allison is carrying is still born.
Time and again James reverts to her patriotic theme of an ultimately victorious England but only if everyone does what they can to help the war effort. Allison, before marrying Roger, had been in the ARP service, because she was convinced that by so doing she would be useful. As she said to her sister, ‘Everyone had to do what they thought was right’. On one evening the talk in the pub turns to how defeatism has led to the fall of France. In England, however, ‘we’ve a hell of a way to go, but we’ll win all right, if we all work hard enough’ – (p 59). Gay is stirred by Churchill’s famous Dunkirk speech, ‘this was the reason the Germans would never beat us. This was why Dick had gone and James Barclay; this was the crisis we needed to shock us into reality. She felt it would be all right now. Nothing would shake her faith, in our power to win, again’ – (p 62).
James does occasionally introduce a thoughtful note. Mrs Black, for instance, who has lost her son, approves of Beth joining the ATS, ‘For women the war’s even harder than for men. It seems to me we have that much more to lose’ – (p 67). The nature of society in the post-war world is also touched upon fleetingly when Gay wonders what it will be like after the War. Dick realises that much has changed and believes that ‘we shall all have to fight for the peace as hard as for the war’ – (p 139). None of these themes is addressed in any depth. James does though succeed in getting across the shared and individual experiences of the working people of London in the darkest days of the War, a War that had a profound effect both on their own lives and on society.